Davis, Weber and Morgan counties want some restaurants and businesses to open as soon as May 1

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Davis County Health Department Director of Health Brian Hatch, says a few words about the “preparation to open” plan for Davis, Weber and Morgan counties, during a news conference at the Davis County Commission Chambers in Farmington, Wednesday April 22, 2020

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Farmington • Three northern Utah counties say they are ready to start relaxing some restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic, and could be ready to open shuttered restaurants, gyms and other businesses May 1.

The Wednesday announcement from Weber, Morgan and Davis counties is in line with Gov. Gary Herbert’s timeline for a “soft” reopening of businesses and parks in Utah.

County officials say they are waiting for Herbert to release specific guidelines next week, but said they’ll emphasize social distancing, increased cleanings and wearing face masks for businesses that could reopen in the beginning of May.

They say their new order could impact openings for everything from restaurants to retail outlets to spas and construction businesses. Guidelines for opening parks or holding events are expected to be released at a later date.

County officials say they're comfortable with starting to reopen businesses after looking at data, including the number of people in their counties who have COVID-19 and the local hospitals' capability to treat people who are ill with the virus.

"We have been effective," said Weber-Morgan Health Department Executive Director Brian Bennion. "I stand today excited, but still cautious. This is not over."

Like state officials, Bennion likened the soft opening to a "dimmer" instead of a "light switch."

"We're going to begin turning up the light," he said, "and moving forward."

Davis County has had 249 coronavirus cases, and one death as of Wednesday. Weber and Morgan have had 130 cases and two people have died.

County officials said they believe that by May 1, their areas will be at "moderate risk" and things can start to reopen.

"It is nice to perceive some light at the end of a difficult tunnel," said Morgan County Commissioner Robert McConnell.

The commissioners pushed back on criticism that officials went overboard initially in shuttering certain businesses like gyms and spas, and limiting restaurant services. Davis County Commissioner Lorene Kamalu said they "nailed it" when it came to ordering the closures.

“This was all about timing,” she said. “And doing the right things at the right time. Because if you act too late, you have missed the opportunity. We were very intentional with the timing of each phase so far.”

The northern Utah counties joined Salt Lake, Summit, Tooele and Wasatch counties in issuing stay-at-home orders in late Match. The governor opted for a directive instead encouraging residents statewide to stay home.

Other counties are also considering whether to ease up on restrictions beginning May 1. Summit County leaders made a similar announcement Tuesday — though some feared it might be too soon to reopen businesses there because it is a tourist destination and has been a hot spot for the coronavirus.

Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson relaxed its county’s order last week, saying it was no longer necessary for people to stay at home as often. She also said county leaders would evaluate in the coming weeks to see if some businesses could open May 1.

But Salt Lake City’s mayor is not ready to begin loosening stay-at-home restrictions quite yet.

Areas continue to see some of Utah’s highest virus transmission rates, Mayor Erin Mendenhall said, so the city needs its own tailored and data-driven approach to the health crisis.

“Our most vulnerable communities are the most severely impacted,” Mendenhall said during a Monday teleconference with young Utah leaders.

She said the city would continue to monitor several benchmarks for the outbreak and work with newly available data from Salt Lake County Health Department officials.